The Road to Ataraxia

This post is the first in a series of posts on skepticism (and Goose Island beer.) The rest of the posts will be available here.

There are a great number of philosophies and religions in the world. And many, if not most of them promise peace of mind for their adherents. It is a fair assumption, however, that they cannot all be right. As a result, there are those who go through life, trying on a number of different beliefs, hoping to find the one that will deliver on this promise of άταραξία – peace or tranquility.

According to Diogenes Laërtius, Pyrrho was one such intellectual searcher. He travelled extensively with the philosopher Anaxarchus. With him, he visited the Gymnosophists (“naked wise men”) of India and the Magi (holy men) of Persia. But in the end, he settled on a philosophy of skepticism. Rather than finding something to believe in, Pyrrho found peace in withholding belief in anything.

According to Sextus Empericus, the search for άταραξία is only resolved when one gives up on finding the belief that will provide it. “For that which is related of Apelles the painter happened to the Sceptic. It is said that as he was once painting a horse he wished to represent the foam of his mouth in the picture, but he could not succeed in doing so, and he gave it up and threw the sponge at the picture with which he had wiped the colors from the painting. As soon, however, as it touched the picture it produced a good copy of the foam. The Sceptics likewise hoped to gain άταραξία by forming judgments in regard to the anomaly between phenomena and the things of thought, but they were unable to do this, and so they suspended their judgment; and while their judgment was in suspension άταραξία followed, as if by chance, as the shadow follows a body.”

When one has affirmative beliefs about what is good and what is bad, he is caught in an unpleasant trap. On the one hand, he is unhappy because he is aware of all of the “good” things that he does not possess. On the other hand, he is constantly afraid of losing his “goods” and being subjected to “bad” things. Whereas the skeptic does not suffer from these envies or fears.

Perhaps the most relatable application of this philosophy is the refusal to opine as to whether death is good or bad. Most people fear death because they perceive it as a loss of the good things that they have, or as a bad in itself. Some people welcome or hope for death because they believe that death (perhaps coupled with some afterlife) is a good in itself, or a relief from the evils of life. The skeptic, unwilling to judge whether death is good or bad is ambivalent. He is at peace, precisely because he is willing to withhold his judgment about whether his station is good or bad.

The road to άταραξία, in part, is the refusal to opine about which road is best.

Goose IPA


Beer of the week: Goose IPA – Goose Island, although regarded by some as a macro-brew sell-out, does produce some pretty tasty beers. This IPA has a pretty, dark gold pour. The aroma is slightly musty with yeast and malt. It smells like the inside of a brewery. This beer is exceptionally smooth. It is also very well balanced. Goose IPA is not overly hopped and has plenty of malt flavor. It is a very enjoyable beer.

Reading of the week: Pyrrhonic Sketches by Sextus Empericus – Unfortunately, Pyrrho did not leave any writings behind. What we know of his philosophy comes primarily from these Pyrrhonic Sketches (more often translated as Outlines of Pyrrhonism.)

Question of the week: The idea that we cannot be sure of what is good and what is bad, particularly with regards to death, sounds an awful lot like stoicism. What are the principle distinctions between skepticism and stoicism?

Paradoxical Poetry

An original poem on some of Zeno’s paradoxes:

Traverse a line? Don’t make me laugh!
Each segment’s segment’s cut in half.
One cannot simply walk the line,
‘cross infinite halves in finite time.

Swooping down from high above
The eagle catches fleeing dove,
Yet swift Achilles, to this day,
Cannot o’ertake his tortoise prey.

We see the arrow fly through air,
But surely there’s no motion there.
The arrow, ne’er before it’s caught,
Moves where it is, nor where it’s not.

In the hippodrome they run their course,
Speeds are measured in length of horse.
Opposing directions they fly past,
Each to the next seems doubly fast.

At the risk of over-explaining, a quick note on the four paradoxes mentioned in the poem:

The first verse deals with a paradox known as the “dichotomy”. This is probably the most well known of Zeno’s paradoxes. For a runner to reach the finish line, he must first reach the midpoint. In order to reach the midpoint, he must first go half way to the midpoint. And so on. As a consequence, before any distance can be traversed, an infinite number of smaller distances must be covered. And to take an infinite number of steps must take an infinite time. Therefore, the runner cannot possibly run even a short distance.

The second verse deals with the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise. It is actually quite similar to the first. Although Achilles is much faster than a tortoise, he can never catch it because in the time that it takes him to reach where the tortoise was, the tortoise will have moved a little further away. Therefore, before Achilles can ever catch up to the tortoise, he must first reach all of the infinite points where the tortoise had already been.

The third verse is the paradox of the arrow. An arrow, just like any other physical body, always takes up a space equal to itself. So at any given instant the arrow cannot move inside that space because the space is exactly the size and shape of the arrow. But it also cannot move outside of that space because it is perfectly contained. Therefore, motion is impossible.

The final verse treats the paradox of the stadium. If two teams of horses, four horses long each, pass each other in opposite directions, an observer will notice that in the time that the lead horse has covered a total distance of two horse-lengths, it will have actually passed all four of the other team’s horses. Therefore the chariot, despite its constant speed, travels two different distances in the same amount of time, which is absurd.


Beer of the week: Cerveza Monterrey – The term “Corona knock-off” gets thrown around a bit, and this isn’t the first beer I’ve reviewed that might merit that description. This extremely pale Guatemalan lager is very carbonated. On its own, it is fairly watery and tastes of corn. The addition of lime and sea salt, however, makes this a reasonably palatable hot-weather drink. With a lot of lime, it is rather refreshing.

Reading for the week: Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laërtius, Parmenides, Melissus, and Zeno of Elea – Zeno’s own writings are lost to us. However, Diogenes Laërtius (among others) preserved some of his ideas. Diogenes also relates the gruesome details of Zeno’s death, including the part where Zeno bites off the ear (or nose) of a tyrant. To help give context to Zeno’s life, this reading includes the lives of his teacher (and lover?) Parmenides and his contemporary Melissus.

Question for the week: Are the paradoxes mere logic tricks, or do they point to some more profound truth?